Jack says his main motivation for hosting the threshing bee annually is to give people of all ages a glimpse into the past.
Ihad seen the posters for years, advertising the annual threshing bee at a Vibank, Saskatchewan farm. I had always wanted to go, having heard the tales of threshing bees from my pioneer grandparents. But there always seemed to be more important things to do on those September Saturdays.
However, 2008 was the year. I laced up my ropers, told my family not to expect me home until supper and I headed down the road to Jack Grad’s place.
I scanned the yard for a place to park, surveying the numerous horse trailers in the distance and the old-timer folks who were gathering in the fields. It took just one glimpse of those towering teams of heavy horses to take me back to the days of the pioneers. I couldn’t help but think that I had stepped 80 years back in time as I saw Jack Grad and his young hired hand, Priscilla Tames, plowing the fields by horse.
“Keep her in the furrow dear,” I overheard Jack saying patiently. “Just go easy there girl.”
It was with admiration in his voice and a glow of pride on his face that I witnessed the 70-year-old farmer coaching his young protégé through the trials of plowing a field. With the reins in her hands and two towering Percherons in her command, 28-year-old Priscilla took every word from “Grandpa Jack” to heart. Guests at the annual threshing bee watched in awe, as Jack and Priscilla worked together to recreate a part of the province’s past.
“That Priscilla, I can’t believe that a girl can get involved like that and have so much enthusiasm for the old ways of doing things -— she was harrowing, stooking and plowing like she’d done it all her life,” said Jack.
The hundreds of visitors who attended the threshing bee came to see how the past has managed to survive in the present-day world.
“For me, it’s great to have my great-grandchildren here to show them what we used to do,” said Bill Duke, a Francis farmer who attended the event with his son and two great-grandchildren. “I’m glad to see that Jack has brought a part of history to life here because to see all the physical labour that was done in those days is really something else.”
While Jack said he wouldn’t necessarily want to return to the era when it took days to harvest just 60 acres of crop, he does believe it’s important to keep those traditions alive.
“Today they can knock off 40, 50, 60 acres of crop in just a few hours, but it astonishes me how, with all the big equipment, they still can’t seem to get done. You see guys going seven days a week until the middle of the night and they still don’t have enough time,” said the mild-mannered horseman. “In our day, we only worked five days a week and we stopped at six o’clock every night because the horses had to eat. And when Friday night came, the horses were brought in, their harnesses were hung and that was it. The light horses and buggy were brought out to go to town for groceries on Saturday and to go to church on Sunday — that gave the working teams a chance to rest. Today, they don’t even have time to go to church.”
Jack says his main motivation for hosting the threshing bee annually is to give people of all ages a glimpse into the past. He spends all summer preparing for the day, doing everything from getting equipment ready, stooking (arranging bound sheaves of wheat in standing formations so they dry) and training his horses for the unique jobs they will undertake. He said all the work is worth it when he sees the faces of the people who climb up on the stook rack to pitch sheaves.
“I built a set of stairs so everyone who wanted to, no matter how old they were or what shape they were in, could get up on that rack and pitch some sheaves into the threshing machine,” said Jack. “Guys are always coming up to me and asking if they can throw some sheaves into the separator, and I say, ‘climb those stairs and get to work.’ Well you should see them, their eyes nearly pop out of their heads and I bet they don’t get much sleep that night because they’re so excited.”
John Saum, 63, is a former farmer who pitched sheaves at this year’s threshing bee. With a pitchfork in hand, and the rhythmic sounds of the kerosene-powered tractor in the background, John was like a kid in a candy store.
“To get that fork in my hand and to twist those sheaves the way I used to so that the heads went in first, well I just got so excited,” said John, explaining that some of his fondest childhood memories were of helping threshing crews when he was just eight years old. “When you’re a young kid, you feel pretty important up on that 15-foot-high pile of straw. The chaff would be flying in your face and you’d be working your buns off and you’d think you were a pretty grown man.”
Jack says, as long as he can, he’ll keep hosting his annual threshing bees and giving people like John a chance to harvest the way they used to. And Priscilla says she’ll be standing right by Jack’s side.
“For Jack, that’s his day — he lives for that day. He was so concerned this year because he’s had a sore knee and he worried that he couldn’t get everything done. And I said to him, ‘Jack, you just tell me and I’ll get it done — I’ll be your knee that day,’” said Priscilla. “And when the day finally came and I could see how much Jack was enjoying it, I said to one of the young men who was here, if something ever happens to Jack, you and I are taking over.”
Some traditions are just too important to let fade away.
Jack Grad is planning his annual threshing bee again for September. 5 at Vibank, Saskatchewan. Phone 306-762-4614 for more information.
Christalee Froese writes from Montmartre, Saskatchewan